I’ve been excited about this interview for a while. In fact, when I first conceived of posting interviews on my blog, Nicole Blair was high on my list to pursue. I’ve often told Dr. Jay that if we still lived in Austin, I would love to be working at Studio 512. For free. She’s just that cool.
I met Nicole through friends (in a wine club, when life was so different) in Austin while I was in grad school. I always liked to mix it up with people not associated with architecture while I was a student, and in grad school I was friends with some business school ladies who did things like tail-gate and participate in a wine club. Here I was, socializing with my “not architecture” friends, and I meet Nicole Blair, one of Austin’s hippest designers. Of course. And I’m so glad I did. Nicole started her own firm called Studio 512 (the numbers refer to Austin’s area code) and was nice enough to show me around her office one day a few years ago. It was immediately evident how hard she works. She really gives her all to her clients. What I hope you can tell from this interview is just how genuine and original she is. Her solutions to design-problems are thoughtful and usually very budget-conscious. She is approachable and makes people feel that way about her architecture. I have so much respect for Nicole and everything she has accomplished. She did not fail to impress me with this interview, and I’ll know you’ll be impressed, too. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Tell us a little about yourself- where you’re from, where you went to school, what you are doing now, etc.
I grew up in Austin, TX. After taking an 11 year hiatus to study, work and travel, I returned to Austin and began Studio 512, a design firm focused on finding functional, unique solutions to architectural design problems. While away I earned degrees from Cornell University (B. of Science in Textiles and Apparel) and Rice University (Masters of Architecture), traveled abroad to Paris and Florence, and worked for Architects Peter Eisenman and Robert Stern in New York City. It’s been a treat to return to my hometown and help shape the place that first shaped me.
How did you get interested in architecture?
I visited an architecture booth at a career fair in Junior High School. I was mesmerized by a crisp, white scale model of a commercial building and thought a field which mixed the arts, science, and math was a good fit for me. The presenter said Architecture was historically male dominated, but was becoming a promising career path for women. I knew in that moment (one I still remember well) that I would pursue architecture as a career.
What projects are you currently working on?
A guest house for a film-maker, a showroom for a stone company, a master bath suite renovation, a new billiards/entertainment/wine tasting space for a family of five, and a 1920’s bungalow renovation and addition.
[some images of Nicole’s work, past and present]
What do you think is the biggest misconception about architects or architecture?
I think a lot of folks aren’t aware of the amount of time it takes to thoughtfully conceive of, design, draw, and detail a new house or other design project (commercial, civic, etc). The design process for even a small residential remodel typically spans months and includes dozens of meetings and communications between me and the client, contractors, possible subcontractors, material suppliers, city and neighborhood officials, etc.
What’s your most memorable project?
A non-traditional fence I built with my Dad between the back of a property and an alley. We strung 2 diameters (colors) of common weed eater wire in a woven pattern between posts with eyes. The fence’s design allows the possibility to change the woven material and pattern over time. Suitably, the design also eliminates the need for weed eating along the fence line as the wire is flexible enough for a lawn mower push the fence out (or in) to mow directly under the wire. It’s also fun to bounce against.
Tell us about some of the community projects you are involved in.
For me, involvement in community building projects and lending time and design expertise to non-profit efforts is critical to being a responsible design professional. On average Studio 512 is involved in one pro bono project per year. This year we worked with The Austin Museum of Art and students from The University of Texas at Austin to build interactive displays in their FamilyLab to illustrate concepts from their current exhibition: “Good Design: Stories from Herman Miller”. The UT students engaged in laser cutting, CNC routing, sewing, painting, woodworking, and video to create “Card City”, “Exploring Ergonomics”, “Fold your own Miniature Chair”, pattern printing and other projects for museum visitors. Last year we helped The Rude Mechanicals Theater Company design and build a theater practice space for their Grrl Action program.
What architect or architects inspire you and why?
Herzog and DeMeuron’s creative material facades and forms. Zumthor’s primal, spiritual, simply and clearly detailed buildings. Gaudi’s whimsy and imagination. The diffused natural light streaming into a museum gallery designed by Renzo Piano. MVRDV’s clever site planning, space making, stacking techniques. Jeanne Gang’s success as a female architect.
What is your favorite city for architecture?
I have had the privilege to live in Florence, Paris, Austin, Houston, and New York City, each of which have their own unique charm and appeal (yes, even Houston has attractive qualities which make it a vibrant, satisfying city to visit and live). I have visited cities throughout Europe and North America as well: London, LA, Marfa, Madrid. What excites me is experiencing their differences. Traveling along wide grand blocks in Barcelona then meandering through narrow, winding streets within Florence gives me reference to favor them both. I find joy in discovering new cities: considering their scale, topography, density, materiality, playfulness, efficiency, relative to other places I’ve been.
What work of architecture would you most like to visit?
If I could hop on a plane tomorrow, I would travel to Beijing to see The Nest by Herzog and DeMeuron.
If you weren’t an architect, what other career path would you have taken?
When I was a student I couldn’t imagine following any other career path, but now that I am an adult, I think I would enjoy being a chef, an event planner, a curator/gallerist, gift/ paper shop owner, or perhaps even a cinematographer.
What, if anything, would you change about architectural education?
Just after graduating from Rice, I complained to John Casbarian, the Assistant Dean of the School of Architecture, that I had not been taught enough practical skills to be productive in an architecture firm. He said this was a common complaint for recent graduates but that when he spoke with students when they returned for their 10 or 20 year reunions, they said they missed having time to focus on architectural theory and thinking more open-endedly about our built environment and how we live in it. I graduated 8 years ago and already have begun to see John’s point. Today, I would suggest that art history and hand drawing courses be required of all students seeking architectural degrees. I will likely answer differently in a couple of years.